Stephanie Gelman and Peter Moskowitz: Time for Herbert to follow doctors’ advice

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Gov. Gary Herbert and Derek Miller at a news conference announcing the "Stay Safe to Stay Open" campaign in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020.

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.”

While often attributed to Albert Einstein, this statement perfectly depicts Gov. Gary Herbert’s ineffective efforts to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic in Utah.

One would suspect that Herbert remembers using empty threats with his children and how they usually failed. Similarly, his attempts to motivate Utahns to wear masks and social distance without follow-through on proposed consequences present an appearance of weakness and indecisiveness.

In July, when daily COVID-19 cases averaged in the mid-500s, he threatened to reinstate restrictions or move the state to “orange” if case numbers did not decrease. We have recently seen triple the number of cases we had back in July, and he has yet to follow through with his ultimatum.

Instead, each week, we hear his mantra for Utahns to take personal responsibility and wear a mask. His meaningless pleas are simply ignored.

Meanwhile, the cases are continuing to rise and soon our hospitals and intensive care units will be at full capacity. When most hospital resources are being allocated to treat large volumes of high-acuity COVID-19 patients, access to health care for non-COVID-19 related illness will be limited. The fallout of an overburdened hospital system will affect everyone.

Our communities should not have to suffer the recent tragedies seen in New York City hospitals.

It isn’t too late for Herbert to recognize and follow the expert advice provided to him from public health epidemiologists, infectious diseases experts, hospital systems and medical groups. Both the Utah Hospital Association and the Utah Medical Association, organizations that represent thousands of front-line health care workers, have requested a statewide mask mandate.

A COVID-19 vaccine will not be widely available until 2021. There is no preventive medicine to stop the spread of the virus. An inhumane number of lives would have to be sacrificed before herd immunity is achieved and clearly is not an option. The only strategies we are left with to dampen the ominous surge of COVID-19 are widespread, meticulous mask use and heightened social distancing regulations.

Upgrading or downgrading regional COVID-19 risk levels should not be arbitrary and needs to be implemented consistently based on appropriate criteria determined by the state epidemiologist. Recently, Provo and Orem were moved to an orange level restriction.

Rich Saunders, Utah Department of Health interim executive director, stated that a change from yellow to orange is based on: 1) a 14-day rolling average exceeding 35 daily cases per 100,000 people, 2) statewide hospitalization utilization rate above 68%, or 3) when the seven-day test positivity rate reaches 20% or greater. If these criteria were uniformly applied, more cities should be in the orange category at present.

At this turning point, Herbert can continue to take advice from his political and economic advisers or change course and start following the advice of medical experts. The future of Utah’s health is in his hands.

Stephanie Gelman, M.D.

Stephanie Gelman, M.D., is an infectious disease physician in Salt Lake City.

Peter Moskowitz, M.D.

Peter Moskowitz, M.D., is a pediatrician and owner of ABC Pediatrics in Cottonwood Heights.